Kishore Mahbubani Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

America and the World: Conversation with Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yee School of Public Policy, Singapore; March 12, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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The Effects of Globalization

You do an excellent job in your book of pointing out that one consequence of America's great success in the period after World War II was the beginning of a new process of globalization to connect the world to the U.S. and vice versa. You suggest in the book that we are unaware of the extent to which these exchanges and the technology have created a new global Islamic community that may not agree with the terrorists but is very sensitive to the consequences of American policy, and also very sensitive, because of Islam's traditions, to the injustices that result from that policy.

Yes. Most Americans would be shocked to learn that, apart from the conscious efforts that America made to whip up the Islamic jihadist sentiment in Afghanistan -- that was one way in which America changed the Islamic world -- another critical way in which it changed the Islamic world was that the different parts of the Islamic world used to live in different pools of history and there was indeed very little interconnectedness between these different pools of Islamic history. But thanks to the technology that America has created, especially the technology of television and radio, and so on and so forth, what America has effectively done is built technological pipes that link the different pools of Islamic history.

Certainly, growing up in Southeast Asia, where there are more Muslims than there are in the Arab world, there was very little consciousness, for example, of Palestine or the struggle of Palestine in the fifties or sixties, or even the seventies. But in the eighties and nineties, as more and more households got television, as more and more Muslims in Southeast Asia were getting daily scenes of Palestinians being killed, this sense of solidarity within different parts of the Islamic world grew significantly.

Today, with al Jazeera being shown on a daily basis and on a dubbing basis in Southeast Asia, it aggravates the problem even more. It's important for America to be aware both of the intended consequences of its actions and the unintended consequences of its actions, because quite often the unintended consequences are much larger than the Americans are aware of.

This was true in the economic realm in the nineties, when the Asian financial crisis came and the American response was not what it might have been. Global interests [had once had] priority because of the Cold War, [but] now the Cold War was over. Talk a little about that, because many Asian countries were disappointed by our response.

Even though I mention in my book that the turning point in America's relations with the world happened at the end of the Cold War, it took some time for other countries to realize that America's attitudes towards them had changed.

What I talk about in the book is how America behaved when the Asian financial crisis happened. When the Asian financial crisis happened, many of the longstanding allies of the United States in Southeast Asia -- take for example Thailand, Indonesia -- assumed that because they had been longstanding allies with the United States, the United States would in one way or another, directly or indirectly, come to their rescue. It came as a shock to both the Thai and Indonesian elites when they realized that they were no longer necessary allies and they had become dispensable. I quote a senior [U.S.] Treasury official as saying, when he was asked would America rescue Thailand from the Asian financial crisis in the way they rescued Mexico, the response of this Treasury official was, "Well, Thailand is not our border, is it? So, why should we?"

The idea that America would only care about countries on its border went against the whole spirit of what America projected to the rest of the world throughout the Cold War, when in its daily rhetoric America would always say that America was out there in the world protecting not just American interests, it was also protecting global interests. You know the famous words of President John F. Kennedy: "We will pay any price, bear any burden, to go out and defend liberty." In all its words and deeds in the Cold War, it seemed to suggest that America was not just about American interests, America was also about the global interests. But the events of the 1990s began to reveal that the global interest began to matter less and less to America. That's how the process of disillusionment began to rise with America.

So for example, the response of the Clinton administration to aspects of the global crisis in the case of a neighboring state, like Mexico: they were willing to intervene to stabilize the situation. In the case of an American hedge fund that was about to lose a lot of money, it was willing to intervene. But in the case of Indonesia and Thailand it didn't find the need. In fact, when push comes to shove, you're suggesting in your book, they would intervene to protect American business in Indonesia but not necessarily the stability of Indonesian money.

The big difference, if I could summarize it very crudely, in the American approach to the Mexican financial crisis and to the crisis involving long-term capital management is that America was very concerned about the consequences of the policies they recommended. If there was a breakdown in Mexico, or if there was a breakdown in America, it would try to avoid it and focus on minimizing the consequences. In the case of Thailand and Indonesia, it took a very clinical approach and said, "You have to carry out these policies," and even though in some cases, as you know, the policies resulted in social unrest, [America] said, "Well, that's your problem. That's not our problem." That sent an incredibly negative signal to these populations, which hated to believe that America would not [mitigate financial effects] that would damage them.

As I mention in the book, once during the Asian financial crisis, there was an effort by Japan to set up an Asian rescue effort, to rescue some of these countries. America essentially vetoed that move and said, "No, no, no. You are disrupting the rules of the game. There should just be an international reaction and no regional reaction." So, on the one hand, America was perceived to be not mobilizing the international institutions to help Thailand and Indonesia effectively, and on the other hand, it also blocked Japan from mounting an Asian regional effort.

It does lead to questions in people's minds, saying, "But I thought these Americans cared about other people. I thought they cared about their friends. I thought they would come to help their friends in need. Where are they now?" That began to change, color the attitudes of the rest of the world towards America.

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